At 8.59am on Saturday 3 October, a group of actors including Jude Law will be gathered on Osea, a small island off the coast of Essex only reachable by causeway, seconds from pressing go on something of a TV first.
For 12 hours, the cast of Sky and HBO’s ambitious new show The Third Day will be performing continuously, in real-time, for a “completely unique” theatrical TV event that falls in the middle of what would otherwise be a typical six-episode series.
Three separate but interconnected stories, told in three parts – Summer, Autumn and Winter – The Third Day launches with its first “regular” episode next week, telling the story of Sam (Law), a man who is drawn to the mysterious island, but becomes trapped and isolated from the mainland.
After the three episodes of Summer comes Autumn, the half-day theatrical extravaganza, and then the final section, Winter, which sees Naomie Harris arrive as Helen, a headstrong outsider who is also drawn to the island, searching for answers (it’s all very mysterious). Emily Watson, Paddy Considine and Katherine Waterston also star.
Of course, the standard TV episodes are in the bag. But when the single camera starts to roll for Autumn, the behind-the-scenes team who have been working on bringing this project to life for the best part of the last decade will be excitedly but no doubt nervously watching to see how it unfolds.
Will the characters get to eat? Will Jude Law be able to go to the toilet? What happens if an actor goes off-piste? And who’ll be first to realise they’ve forgotten to switch off their phone?
Sky News has spoken to the show’s creators, writer Dennis Kelly and Felix Barrett, founder of interactive theatre specialists Punchdrunk, to find out how it’s all going to work.
Six TV episodes with a theatrical event in the middle – how does that bit work?
One camera, following the cast for 12 hours. It’s as simple as that. Viewers will follow the events of a single day in real-time broadcast as-live from the island. In one continuous take, the rituals and traditions of the islanders will be revealed further.
According to the blurb, it will “blur and distort the lines between what’s real and what’s not”.
“Once we press go at nine o’clock in the morning, the actions just play out as if they were real over the next 12 hours,” says Barrett. “It’s going to be pretty unprecedented.
“We want to capture the frisson of live performance… we’re really trying to capture that sort of brittle, fragile nature of ‘anything could happen’. We wanted to lean on the spontaneity of once, and once only.
“There’s no right or wrong way to watch it. We just encourage the curious to watch Summer and then, at some point on 3 October, switch on and see what happens.”
Alongside Law, Watson and Waterston will also perform in Autumn, as will Florence Welch, of Florence And The Machine, in an acting role.
Twelve hours is a long time. What happens if you miss Autumn, or only catch bits of it?
Glad you asked! Don’t worry, Kelly and Barrett admit 12 hours is “a ridiculous amount of time” to stay glued to the TV, and they’re not expecting most Autumn viewers to stick around for the duration – “although if you wanted to I think it’ll be an amazing day”, says Barrett.
So whether you watch bits or skip completely and go straight from Summer to Winter, you’ll still be able to follow the stories.
“We knew we had to make something that you didn’t need to see the whole thing, you could get away with seeing just the TV,” says Kelly.
“You can see the TV on its own and you still get the full story. But if you engage with the live, there’s definitely more there. And of course, the more you engage with it the more you get out of it. So you could just dip in and see five minutes, or you could, to the extreme, you could watch a full 12 hours.”
Is it scripted? Surely they haven’t been making the actors rehearse a full 12-hour performance?
That would be like training for a marathon. No doubt happily for the actors, there’s room for improv.
“Actually the whole thing is completely, meticulously choreographed and planned,” says Barrett. “But… for the performers, being inside their character, you can’t completely choreograph that because the sheer rehearsal time would be mind-blowing.
“So it’s sort of semi-improvised within a really, really set structure. The choreography of the camera alone has to be utterly meticulous for it to have a chance of working.”
Kelly says he has written some specific scenes for the live event, “where there’s an important point to get across or a story to get in”. Devised rather than fully improvised, is the way he puts it.
A TV first?
We’re used to watching live sport and live news and even live real people singing, eating bugs in the jungle and even just sleeping on reality shows, but live drama is something different.
“We’ve seen sports events that have amazing production values, we’ve also seen increasing amounts of theatre being captured – Hamilton’s now on Disney,” says Barrett. “But I think the idea of doing [drama] live…
“The performers have got to stay inside that character for 12 hours solid, which is quite a feat of endurance. To broadcast that live with all the inherent danger does feel like it’s quite unprecedented.”
Barrett says they have been working on the project for about eight or nine years.
“It’s actually very difficult to get a bit of premium TV made, even though we’re in this incredible golden age, it takes a long time and there’s many, many steps to it,” he says. “Then, to make a large-scale piece of theatre, to get that over the line; equally, it can take many, many years.
“But to do the two when they’re entwined together, some people said it wasn’t really possible, we needed too many stars to align. But Dennis and I were really committed to trying to break new ground.”
What about breaks? Jude Law needs to eat!
We don’t want another Game Of Thrones coffee cup-gate on our hands. And the actors will need to go to the loo too, for that matter. How will that work?
“Meals will be happening on camera,” says Barrett. “I think going to the loo… they might have to actually nip behind a tree.”
“Loo brakes and eating, that’s all going to be done on camera,” says Kelly. “Well, not exactly all on camera… but if they need to eat, they’re going to eat on camera.”
And phones? Are they being confiscated?
This could be tough. But the rules are strict.
“We’re removing any distractions,” says Barrett. “We want them to almost live as the character, so there’s no phones, no traces of their normal life. I think even things like underwear we’re supplying, so it’s all in character… unless there’s a show phone, their character phone.”
“The nice thing about filming [on Osea] was that all distractions were gone,” says Kelly. “There’s not even shops there. So when we were filming, it was like you had this entire set to yourself. Anyone that was on the island was to do with the production, generally.”
Could one of the cast go rogue?
Are the creators excited to see how it pans out? Will all the cast be well-behaved, or is there a danger of someone taking the storyline to a weird place?
“It’s slightly shrouded in mystery, really, what’s going on on that island,” says Kelly. “It’s a place where something strange is happening.
“I think we’re not really going to know until we start shooting it. That is the sort of slightly crazy but also very exciting thing, we’re not totally sure what we’re going to get.”
How did Law get involved?
Barrett describes the star as the show’s anchor, and says he wouldn’t bet on anyone else to nail the part.
“The skill set needed in doing live theatre and then screen work, it’s very different,” he says. “He’s actually a master of both; he’s played Hamlet on Broadway and the West End and obviously his film record speaks for itself.
“It’s very, very rare, I think almost unprecedented, for an actor to use both those disciplines for one character, particularly in the same project.”
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the show?
The original plan for Autumn was to create an immersive event on Osea, with members of the public taking part to tell that chapter of the story. However, COVID-19 put paid to that.
“We wanted to play with the idea of how you could tell a story across different disciplines… and the idea of breaking the fourth wall, we wanted to destroyed the fourth wall of the TV screen and enable the audience to fall inside the world of it and actually become part of it,” says Barrett. “But then COVID struck and we had to change our plans.”
At first, they thought the middle section might have to be scrapped entirely.
“But we decided to pivot to, rather than an audience of thousands on the island, an audience of one, which is a roaming camera,” says Barrett.
“There were a few moments where it looked like [the live event] was going to be a complete casualty,” says Kelly. “But actually, HBO and Sky were great. I think it would probably have suited them for the series to go out earlier, it probably would have helped them if the series had gone out earlier [without Autumn], but they were really good. They stood by it.”
“As soon as I stepped on [the island], the atmosphere was so wonderfully haunted and ‘other’,” says Barrett. I think [Dennis] came two days later and the first draft was written within a month.
“It’s definitely got that claustrophobia and intimacy and I think also a sense of isolationism that I think the country as a whole is wrangling with at the moment.”
“Originally this was going to be set in a town,” says Kelly. “We talked about towns like Berwick-upon-Tweed or maybe somewhere smaller, but I realised there was a problem there because in the UK, you can never really get trapped in a town, because you can always walk somewhere; it might take a long time, but there are very few places that are remote enough for you not to be able to walk somewhere.”
And what do they think viewers will make of it?
There’s “nothing more terrifying than seeing people’s reactions” when you’ve been working on something for years, says Kelly.
“When you’re making something, it’s just you and the thing and the people that are doing it and you’re sort of living in that sort of happy, blissful ignorance before anyone’s told you what they think of it.
“Then what happens is you put it on telly and a load of people tell you what they think of it, and that’s kind of a scary moment. So it’s a weird combination – looking forward to it, but also being just generally terrified of it as well.”
Could The Third Day pave the way for more events like this on screen?
“Maybe,” says Kelly. “From when I started [in TV], it has become a much more creative place. We all know this, I think, that TV is really just outstripping lots of other sorts of media in the way that it’s reaching for interesting things.
“It will depend whether it works or not. If it works, we might see more stuff like this. If it crashes and burns, everyone will say, ‘well, of course that was a stupid idea, why were you doing that?’
“I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the strangeness of the endeavour and I like doing things that I haven’t done before as well.
“There’s something in it that is really unusual and interesting. If it works, there will be a long way to take the form, there’ll be a lot of other ways to do this. And some of them will be really interesting, maybe more interesting than what we’re doing. So hopefully we will see more.”
- Episodes 1-6 of The Third Day (Summer and Winter), launch on 15 September and will broadcast weekly on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. Autumn, the theatrical event, will broadcast on Sky Arts from 9am on 3 October